Main Man

Michael Hofmann

  • Walking Possession: Essays and Reviews 1968-1993 by Ian Hamilton
    Bloomsbury, 302 pp, £20.00, May 1994, ISBN 0 7475 1712 6
  • Gazza Italia by Ian Hamilton
    Granta, 188 pp, £5.99, May 1994, ISBN 0 14 014073 5

When you get onto the big wheel of writing (or the little wheels within wheels of poetry), it seems clear to me that the people you look to and feel an affinity for are not – to begin with, anyway – the ones who get on immediately before and after you, still less the ones who’ve been on for ages – you want their seats – but the half-strangers you see through the struts half a cycle (half a generation) away, falling as you rise, rising as you fall. There were three poets I had my eye on – probably all appalled to be mentioned in each other’s company, and by me: Joseph Brodsky, Tom Paulin and, most intimately though I knew him least, Ian Hamilton. When I sent him a copy of my first book, I realised I’d even purloined his initials for my title.

I wasn’t of an age to have been reading, never mind submitting to, his magazines, The Review and The New Review, but when I started publishing around 1980, I had his book of poems The Visit (1970) on permanent loan from the English Faculty Library at Cambridge. It would fall due and I would renew it. I must have read it quite literally hundreds of times – and everyone else not at all! ‘No one shaved, and only the turtle washed,’ as Lowell said of the turtle in the bathtub. I discovered Hamilton, I suppose, and should explain, in the place of honour at the end of A. Alvarez’s The New Poetry, second edition. When the time finally came for me to leave the rocky bosom of Cambridge, I was in a dilemma over the book. I couldn’t live without it. Finally I said I’d lost it, paid the ten pound penalty, and thought I’d got away with murder: no doubt George Washington would have behaved differently. Now I’m the proud owner of four or five copies (whenever I come across one, I buy it), and moreover Faber had the grace to publish an enlarged version in 1988, Fifty Poems, so the library will be back in business too. Greetings, borrowers.

What I admire – not the word – about the poems is their intensity. John Berryman once said: write as short as you can, in order, of what matters. Surely no one – least of all Berryman himself – can have fulfilled the terms of that prescription as scrupulously as Hamilton. The majority of the poems are generated by one of two subjects: a wife’s mental illness and a father’s death from cancer. The few exceptions, just as sombre, are barely to be distinguished. There is something terrible and heroic in this narrow focus, in the way that these few poems, produced over many years, should have settled so close by one another, with their themes of break-up and breakdown, their shattered atmosphere, their identical reference points of hands and heads and hair and flowers and grass and snow and shadow. That ‘silence on other subjects’ that Brecht mentioned in a quite different context, is part of the effect. Nothing else, Hamilton implies, can have any being next to such losses. Each individual poem is pruned back to an austere and beautiful knot of pain. Poetry, by his practice of it, is not craftsmanship or profession, but catastrophe. I can’t, in general terms, think of any better way for a poem to be. Most poems have a hard time answering the question: ‘Is this really necessary?’ Not his.

Fifty poems on 51 pages – there is one, ‘Larkinesque’, that goes ‘over the page’. Exactly half of them ten lines or fewer. A verbal account of an image of an experience: a double distillation, a world away from the stuff that deserves the nasty label ‘confessional’. A bit of 1910, a bit of 1960, and a bit of 1860 in the stately Matthew Arnold (Hamilton’s current subject as a biographer) crumble of the lines. They are physical, without losing themselves in materialist drift; scenic without being pretty; verbally effective but not finical or clever for the sake of it. Thought wrestles with feeling, word with thing, and the poem balances. The ‘I – you’ stuff reminds me now of Montale; the beauty and compression and sorrow of Chinese poetry. The title poem ‘The Visit’:

They’ve let me walk with you
As far as this high wall. The placid smiles
Of our new friends, the old incurables,
Pursue us lovingly.
Their boyish, suntanned heads,
Their ancient arms
Outstretched, belong to you.

Although your head still burns
Your hands remember me.

There is an echo of Yeats (impossible to hear ‘ancient’ without it), quite a bit of ‘Waking in the Blue’ in the humorous commingling of health and sickness, but the thing doesn’t seem literary at all: the tenderness and delicacy and terror of the last two lines are original and primal.

One wishes, reflexively, there were more; but then again, why should there be, or what would there be? Hamilton talks about it in his pained and nobly frank Preface to Fifty Poems: ‘Fifty poems in twenty-five years: not much to show for half a lifetime, you might think. And, in certain moods, I would agree. In certain moods, I used to crave expansiveness and bulk, and early on I had several shots at getting “more of the world” into my verse: more narrative, more satire, more intelligence, and so on.’ More, in other words, would not, could not, be more of the same, and what then would be the point, beyond allowing the poet to think, as he puts it, ‘like a poetry pro’? One realises one has been thinking like a reading pro, and feels – not that Hamilton would have intended that – rebuked.

Stood alongside Fifty Poems, most things just look impossibly trite, leisurely and overstuffed. When Hamilton was judging the New Statesman’s Prudence Farmer Competition some time in the Eighties, I remember he commented on how many of the poems had food in them. My own poems go like sequences of television quiz show prizes, undesirable prizes, prizes for losers, just one darn thing after another! Even with his example before me, how materialistic I have become, even in my own brand of negative materialism! How crass and compendious! Fifty Poems contains nothing in the way of comestibles: cigarettes, ‘J and B’ and ‘a haze of cultivated blossom’. Pick your own! No, I’m wrong: the last poem on the last page, ‘The Forties’, ends:

                  the neat plot
For your (why not?) ‘organic greens’,
The trellis that needs fixing, that I’ll fix.

Well, it hardly reads like the Pauline conversion.

By grace of anno domini or whatever, Ian Hamilton is for me first and last a poet. If I’d been only slightly older, I would have been aware of the literary arbiter and infighter, the Sixties Wunderkind, the builder and demolisher of reputations, the Ian Hammerhead of his friend Clive James’s skit on literary London. And if any younger, he would be the author of the books he’s published since, that nebulous thing, a jobbing biographer and writer, almost in the American sense of the word, a magazine feature writer, a non-fictionist, a prose pro. The poetry-centred view of Ian Hamilton does two things: it sees something, in Hamilton’s own words on Aldous Huxley, ‘sad and impressive’ about the subsequent prose career; and it organises the biographies and reviews, gives them a theme, a ‘subtext’ even, that otherwise they might not have. Still, always underlying everything is the callow, unexamined assumption that if a man has published a book of poems, he would prefer to publish more books of poems than anything else; and that if he could nominate fifty half-filled pages of his writing (all right then, 51) that would endure, it would be his poems. Poetry pro that I hardly am, I feel that, and I guess Ian Hamilton does too.

His biography of Robert Lowell came out in 1982 (at the time, I was half-seriously trying to write a PhD on him). Hamilton, as he writes in ‘A Biographer’s Misgivings’, the first piece in Walking Possession, knew his subject fairly well: ‘I had seen quite a lot of Lowell since his move from New York to London in 1970. I had published his poems, I had interviewed him, I had visited him now and then at home and in hospital. We weren’t friends, exactly, but we were friendly enough allies, of a sort.’ My feeling about the biography was that it was just slightly mechanical in its account of the rhythm of Lowell’s life; and also that it was a pity that Hamilton had kept himself out of it. Thereafter, the role of biographer was imposed on him: subjects suggested were Pound, Plath, Berryman. ‘The common factor in these propositions was, it seemed to me, insanity. I was in danger of being set up as an expert on mad poets.’ But – invoking a characteristic separation or restraint – he turned down those ideas, and instead wrote his book on Salinger. There, ironically, as it seems to me, with a man he didn’t know and would never meet, he proposed that ‘the biographer would be a character in his own book.’ Then came the book on writers in Hollywood – I realise that Hamilton is fascinated by variously enabling and disabling forms of compromise – and on literary estates, and their attendant difficulties for the biographer. Gazza Italia – whatever happened to the beautiful title Gazza Agonistes? – lets the Northeasterner and Spurs fan off the leash. Though not a deep or interesting or even particularly well-written book (by Hamilton’s standards), it does fascinatingly combine aspects of all the others – like Salinger, Paul Gascoigne refuses to meet Hamilton; it’s a book about difficulty of access, about a public figure withholding himself, about compromise (the white of Tottenham for the ‘peculiar blue vest’ of Lazio). Hamilton is even able to reveal that ‘Gazza is a poet!’

The themes adumbrated above are all present in Walking Possession. It is an oddly but appropriately over-organised and compartmentalised collection, stratified into five sections on lives, poetry, fiction, Grub Street and leisure. The carapace is impressive but feels oddly unpersonal and constructed. A dance of five hats and no heart. Much of it is so-whatish – by contrast to the poems. The novel section, for instance, is either about the work of friends (Amis and Barnes) or American megalos: and Hamilton, interestingly, is an American specialist in these essays, never happier than when insolently ribbing the latest big-ticket imports. The poetry section is still weirder: Larkin one can understand, from Hamilton; also Alun Lewis, Roy Fuller, Frost and Graves. But Wilbur and Merrill, Heaney and Motion? I’m not surprised there’s little evidence of attachment to their work, just oblique dismay. For any sort of poetic credo, you have to go back to the poems, or the essays in A Poetry Chronicle (1973), and even there it’s scattered: ‘no point-making or underscoring’; a kind of trust or trust in luck (‘Already the most intelligent poet of his generation’, John Fuller ‘now seems excitingly prepared to place less than a total faith in pure intelligence’); a demand for intensity, for what Hamilton calls in W.D. Snodgrass ‘a voice at once poised and inflamed’. Compared to that sort of engaged criticism, the writing on poetry in Walking Possession is either knockabout or demurral. One suspects the subjects have been chosen specially. They are refractions, distortions, opposites of Hamilton, rather than poets he might feel something for. There is Graves, ‘encouraged to believe that he could finance poetry with prose’; the World War Two poet Alun Lewis: ‘there are those who believe that Lewis’s future as a writer would have been in prose’; Richard Wilbur, ‘a poet of the “shallows” ’ who ‘has under-extended his considerable talent’; ‘What it all boils down to, or up to, is that Larkin the thrifty now has a Collected Poems of substantial bulk’; ‘the parsimonious connoisseur had discovered the necessity of eloquence’ (Stevens). All this is evidence of Hamilton’s fascination at the road not taken; here is someone (inaudibly, to most readers), crying: ‘Hold! Enough!’

Not only are Hamilton’s pursuits scrupulously separated off, and kept away from his own poetry (and his kind of poetry), which might have given them a centre; his own critical persona is in pieces. It seems to me he hardly ever steps out and says what he thinks, in the first person, in his own voice. Instead, he pushes little columns of arguments to and fro. The book is stuffed with phrases like ‘Some would say’, ‘the unkind view of Spender would continue thus’, ‘to our unkind observer, then’. He is impersonal and multitudinous. Even where he does come on in person, he breaks himself up by historicising himself: ‘so I thought’, he writes, or ‘as a bit of a mad poet myself, from time to time’. Even punctuation is called in aid. Hamilton has no equal with a pair of quotation marks. It’s one of several techniques that has survived the move from poetry to prose. Here is the beginning of ‘Critique’:

In Cornwall, from the shelter of your bungalow
You found the sea ‘compassionate’
And then ‘monotonous’,
Though never, in all fairness,
Inconnue’ ...

And here is the Graves ménage: ‘The whole thing came under strain, though, with the appearance of one Geoffrey Phibbs, an Anglo-Irish poetaster of “unstable” yet (some thought) “demonic” character.’ This is at once ironically circumspect, lethal and hilarious.

If the critic himself is largely absent as a set of explicit personal views and responses, he makes up for it through style. In the twenty years since A Poetry Chronicle, Hamilton has cut away much of his critical vocabulary and probably halved his sentence length. He now impresses less by argumentative rigour and marshalling of detail than by overall clarity, wit and mixed registers. His use of first names is straightforwardly wicked: Kingsley, Gore, ‘the tiny Bron’, ‘the obliging Bron’, ‘Tambi’, ‘Junior himself’. He seems to reserve for American subjects that maddening British mixture of mateyness and snottiness. He is a master of phrasing, often, though not always, to debunk: Huxley’s ‘almost awed contempt for ordinary people’, an ‘obscure but powerful thwartedness’ in Kingsley Amis, ‘drowsily ecstatic’ Frost critics, a ‘sinister contentedness’ in Wallace Stevens. When he writes ‘stocky and efficient’, can’t you almost see little Isherwood on the left of the group portrait with Spender and Auden in Rügen? He cites the pair of Margaret Thatcher and D.H. Lawrence as Larkin’s main men, refers to the ‘crappy brainwaves’ of Spurs chairman Irving Scholar and the ‘uncolourful speech’ of Andrew Motion, putting me immediately in mind of the ‘brown teapot’ in his Arvon Prize-winning poem of 1990, ‘A Letter’. This lapidary gift is served, perversely and surprisingly, by wonderful timing. On the Hampsteadites and Islingtonians who went along to the Comic Strip: ‘Most of them, it seemed, had never been called cunts before.’ One wouldn’t have thought it possible, but it’s all in that ‘it seemed’. An Olympian performance from a bored god.